Skip to content


31 October , 2009

India is right to trumpet her many achievements over the last decade. They are well documented, and the world, it seems, is flocking to crown those glories. The crown, though, is littered with the thorns of a dangerous past which its own Congress government has planted, polished and then tried to bury amongst the subsequent bloom of roses. For the secular credentials of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress government are not all that they appear to be.

November 1st 1984

Twenty five years ago, on the morning of November 1st 1984, I woke up in London to get ready for school. My parents, of Indian Sikh origin, sat staring at the television screen. Nobody told us to brush our teeth, or to stop messing around with our Ready Brek. Worried phone calls and shock replaced our daily British routine. The massacre of four thousand innocent Sikhs in Delhi, and beyond, had begun. Much of the world’s media has allowed the Indian government to portray what happened as an ‘explosion of grief’ in response to Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her two Sikh bodyguards following her orders on Operation Bluestar. The truth, however, is far more chilling.

The ten days that followed Gandhi’s assassination are documented extensively in eye witness testimony provided to NGOs and Government Commissions themselves.  Unsubstantiated rumours began to spread on the night of October 31st 1884 that Sikhs were celebrating Gandhi’s murder. By late that night and early the following morning, gangs of young men were dousing petrol and flames into parts of South Delhi that today are amongst the swankiest and most elite residential neighbourhoods of the city. In Delhi, in Kanpur and in Calcutta, the police and political forces stood by whilst the fury of part of the population was unleashed in burnings, killings and horror. Women were gang raped, a violent shame tactic later employed in Gujarat, gurdwaras, home and Sikh business were destroyed. Eye witnesses describe Congress leaders identifying those Sikh homes and businesses by list. There is evidence that Delhi’s public buses were used to transport the gangs from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The army was not called onto the streets on the morning of November 1st 1984.  Curfew was neither imposed nor enforced until most of the damage was done. No credible explanation has ever been provided for this.

Deep questions remain

Two and a half decades later, the language of the discourse remains as blurry as ever. Was it a genocide? Who drew up lists of identification? Why did the police disappear or intervene to protect the mobs rather than the victims? Did Rajiv Gandhi, the incumbent Prime Minister, encourage the murders through his statements on the radio? Did members of Congress incite the killings? Why did Ministers fail to act when they had been warned by the army that a “holocaust” may be unleashed that very night?  Who kept the army at bay? In short, was this State-sponsored violence of the order that led to another decade of brutality in which some 10,000 Punjabi Sikhs, mostly men, were “disappeared” by the State?

The findings of the Nanavati Commission

The Nanavati Commission was set up in 2000 with broad terms of reference. Four years later it reported back, with findings that the State had been involved. Politicians were implicated heavily, but no action taken against them. International organisations have heavily criticised the State actions and impunity with which the police have proceeded in Punjab and Delhi over this period, and the subsequent period of so-called counter-insurgency operations in Punjab. In 2007, India’s CBI finally announced that it was closing the case on 1984 for lack of evidence in spite of massive eye witness testimony both to the violence, as well as to the involvement of police and politicians. In the 1994 report Dead Silence: Legacy of Abuses in Punjab, Human Rights Watch/Asia and Physicians for Human Rights described the government operations in Punjab through the 1980s as “the most extreme example of a policy in which the end appeared to justify any and all means, including torture and murder.” Still, the Congress government of India stays quiet. Indeed, Manmohan Singh even described this torture, killings and disappearances as “aberrations”in the fight against terrorism.

Insaaf: the search for justice

Insaaf means justice in many Indian languages. No justice has been done for India’s Sikhs who represent just 2% of the population but whose culture, language and music now forms the popular background to Bollywood hit after hit.

The Indian government, even with a Sikh at its head, has studiously refused to contemplate the truth of what has happened in India. For many of India’s political and social elite, it is more convenient to forget than to confront. Why dredge up memories that are painful, and which threaten a peaceful co-existence between ethnic and religious communities, they say. The danger in that path is that when it has happened  before, it can happen again. It did happen again. It happened in Mumbai in 1993,  and very notably in Godhra in Gujrat in 2002; still  Narendra Modi who is said to be the chief architect of that genocide against the Gujrati Muslim population, retains power. Kashmir has known decades of state abuse of power with thousands of disappeared and dead. The only certainty in India’s future is that it has happened before, and so without any remedy or accountability, or justice for any of these minority groups, it will happen again. Who knows to whom?

The role of international law

International law and principles demand that States conduct effective investigations and hold perpetrators accountable. In country after country where a population has brutalised its minority, and in the case of South Africa its majority, there has needed to be an open reconciliation with the truth. It can take the form of truth commissions, like in South Africa or in Salvador or Guatemala, or it can take the form of court actions like in Rwanda, Argentina and Chile where the most powerful members of society, including army generals or even Pinochet himself, have been successfully prosecuted for their pivotal role in the disappearances of so many thousands of men.

It is not enough that the Delhi courts very recently have convicted local small fry for their complicity in murder and criticised the Indian Police for their role in the 1984 killings. The Indian government needs both to bring accountability and to be accountable in order to ensure that the architects and orchestrators are not left to enjoy their lives, or even remain in local and national government, with complete impunity.

Last week, Human Rights Watch urged the world’s largest democracy to take a global role in leading the human rights discourse so that it can influence its counterparts in Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But until the truth of the extent of State-sponsored murder on ethnic lines, both in terms of the 1984 pogroms and the subsequent disappearances that ripped through Punjab’s male population, is revealed, the dirty fingers that parade the India Shining adverts across the world are blackening  the country’s very future.

31st October 2009

  1. it’s awfull that such thing happened and no one did anything to stop it and how the international media was on mute and not able to show the world what the indian Governement was upto against sikh people I strongly condemn it.. we talk about india being a democracy and after hearing about such events no one is blind there is nothing as such as democracy what happened to the families of the victims till date nothing has been done for them..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: